(CNN)2020 has the feel of a year that we’ll be re-analyzing, puzzling over and arguing about for a long, long time.

There are other years that stand out in US history. In the introduction to a recent book about the importance of 1968, the journalist Hendrik Hertzberg wrote of the 1960s: …it is universally recognized that 1968 was the peak year — the climactic year, a singular year, a year of events and sensations that cascaded with an intensity that was sometimes unbearable, sometimes ecstatic. In a modest way, 1968 was the kind of year that pushes history in some unforeseen, astonishing direction — a gentler little brother to 1492, 1776, 1848, 1914, 1945, and 2001. My first question for Hertzberg is why he doesn’t include 1865, the year the Confederacy fell, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and slavery was made unconstitutional? Regardless, at not quite halfway through, 2020 already has the hallmarks of a watershed. A quick tour: an impeachmenta pandemica self-inflicted economic shutdowna historically sharp recession and possible Depressiona sudden and dramatic realignment of public debate and policy against racismand an election that will be a referendum on how to proceed after all of the above, as well as on the preceding three years of turmoil under President Donald TrumpRead MoreAll of these things should and will change the way our lives are lived, even though it upsets normal and causes anxiety. But we still have six months to go.A plot on the arc of moral justiceOne thing to consider is that what’s happening now, peaceful protests and a move toward change, will influence a generation of Americans, just like the events of 1968 did. A year that changed America

CNN Original Series “1968” returns with a special presentation on Saturday, June 13 at 10 p.m.

CNN’s Brandon Tensley talked to Lawrence Moore, a longtime protester who grew up in the ’60s — he was 12 in 1968 — and said that what he saw then sparked a lifetime of activism: When I fast-forward to the present, I see how police brutality has been a part of my life as a black man. I grew up in the 1960s — I was 12 years old when the 1968 riots happened — and was moved by watching figures like Stokely Carmichael and John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. There are kids and young adults watching all of this unfold, probably on Instagram or something I haven’t heard of. The true importance of these years comes in the retelling.Protests help politicians learnThe University of Pennsylvania professor Daniel Gillion has looked at racial protests from the ’60s through the LA riots in the early ’90s. These episodes do change things, he writes in the Washington Post: My research finds politicians use racial protests to learn about U.S. race relations, helping them adapt to the latest iteration of minority appeals and giving them an opening for political innovation. As politicians evaluate these protests, they are forced to make racial and ethnic concerns a higher priority than other problems facing the city, state, region or nation. He argues that even just sustained small protests in congressional districts could change lawmakers’ minds. And he has data to back it up.But why does change happen so slowly?New Yorker editor and writer David Remnick pointed to what, painfully, has not changed between 1968 and now: Perhaps the deepest frustration of thinking about 1968 and 2020 is the time elapsed, the opportunities squandered, the lip service paid. In the realm of criminal justice, the prison population began to skyrocket under Ronald Reagan and kept on accelerating for decades, until midway through the Obama Administration. Black Lives Matter began, in 2013, at least in part because even the Obama Presidency, for all its promise, proved unable to exert anything like a decisive influence on issues of racism and police abuse. Now we have a President who is happy to invoke a loaded, racist threat by tweeting, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” And, while the answer to every political question cannot be Donald Trump, the fact is that the country is led by a demagogue whose political impulses are autocratic, whose rhetoric is deliberately divisive. No less infuriating is the fact that Trump, whose racist bona fides range from his 1989 campaign against the Central Park Five to his use of birtherism as a political launch pad, was elected by tens of millions of Americans who either endorsed his bigotry or were willing to tolerate it. That base of support has not contracted to any significant degree, and persists still. What 1968 was likeThe Princeton historian Julian Zelizer wrote a stark description of 1968 here: The nation was stuck in the quagmire of Vietnam, with hundreds of thousands of troops fighting for their lives in a useless conflict. Meanwhile, every day seemed to bring more news of turbulence at home as the anti-war movement brought ongoing clashes between activists and police. The nation was still reeling from a series of devastating riots the year before, stemming from the police harassment of African Americans in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan.Two of the nation’s most influential public figures, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, were tragically assassinated. President Lyndon Johnson announced on March 31, 1968, that he would not run for reelection, while the Democratic National Convention in Chicago disintegrated into violent confrontations between protesters and Mayor Richard Daley’s police.With Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace, running a third-party campaign that appealed to white ethnic anger in response to civil rights and the counterculture, Republican Richard Nixon won the presidency by promising the country he would restore ‘law and order’ on the streets.Trump likes that law and order theme a lot and has tried to appropriate it for himself. But, as Peter Baker wrote in The New York Times, his rhetoric today sounds a lot more George Wallace ’68 (loser, segregationist) than it does Richard Nixon ’68 (two-termer who resigned in disgrace).Is 2020 worse than 1968?Zelizer also argued that 2020 is worse than 1968: Covid-19 has killed nearly twice as many Americans than the 58,000 who died in almost a decade of fighting in Vietnam… … it has imperiled core civic institutions, like schools and houses of worship, and forced us to live apart from friends and family… …We have a President who, unlike either Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, doesn’t seem to care about governance… …As some cities burn, his response is to throw fuel on the fire…… we now live in a partisan world where our institutions perpetuate constant red-blue divisions over almost every issue, no matter how large or small they might be… He goes on to compare the economy of then to now, the threat to government programs from the recession and the persistence of racial inequality. CNN’s James Blake made a different, heartbreaking case for why 2020 feels like it could be worse: A Trump victory in November, though, could derail any momentum generated by the protests, said Christopher Huff, a history professor at Beacon College in Florida who studies protest movements.”It would be devastating,” Huff said. “If what’s happening now translates into an electoral defeat in November, that would be an indicator that what’s been going on may have lacked a grounding to effect long-term change.”Counterpoint: 2020 is extraordinaryOver at The Atlantic, James Fallows sees it differently:…here is what anyone around at that time will remember about 1968: The assassinations. The foreign warfare. The domestic carnage and bloodshed. The political chaos and division. The way that parts of the United States have seemed in the past week, in reaction to injustices, is the way much of the US seemed day after day. I think I can remember every week of that eventful year. Hillary Clinton seems to fall into the Fallows camp. She said this week there are similarities between the activism of 1968 and 2020, but what we’re seeing in 2020 is a better kind of extraordinary. “There are certain similarities but I think the moment we are going through now is extraordinary in the best sense of the word.” Hit record, change the worldThe reporter Karen Grigsby Bates was 16 in 1968 and said recently on NPR that part of what makes 2020 feel so frenetic and unpredictable is the ability of anyone to hit record on an event like the death of George Floyd:What’s different is the fact that a lot of this can be relayed immediately thanks to technology, to be able to, you know, not be a professional media person and to record something that’s happening in real time, push a button and send it on across the country and across the world really changes the power dynamic in a lot of ways.What if it’s not 1968, but 1964?Princeton professor Omar Wasow wrote in the Washington Post that the Floyd protests, when they appeared like violent clashes, resembled 1968.But now that activists have gotten them under control and the public has essentially rejected Trump’s characterization of them, they actually resemble the peaceful protests of 1964. And those peaceful protests, he noted, led directly to the Civil Rights Act.What if it’s none of the above?The New York University professor Thomas Sugrue wrote, also in the Post, that comparing two years separated by 50 other years is superficial and silly: It is tempting but problematic to draw easy inferences linking past and present. Glib comparisons obscure what persists from the 1960s, reducing a long movement for racial justice to a comparison of presidential rhetoric. Seeing 1968 and 2020 as flash points in law and order, as moments of “culture war,” makes it difficult to see what has changed over more than a half-century. The who, the where and the why of 2020 cannot be boiled down to a reprise of 1968, nor can we predict political responses by catching a glimpse of the past through our rearview mirrors.

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